Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Alcoholism: A Ride To Ruin

By BART O'CONNELL, Tribune correspondent
The Tampa Tribune
Published: April 29, 2008

Last Wednesday at Tampa Bay Downs produced one of those perfect racing afternoons - clear skies, a slight breeze, warm temperatures and a fast track.

Ronnie Allen Jr. grew up winning on days like that in the 1980s. Watching him romp to three wins on the card may have felt like a flashback to loyal followers of the track.

With unquestioned natural talent, many assumed Allen was just passing through back then, on his way to the top of the sport like another young rider who began a Hall of Fame career in Oldsmar - Julie Krone.

But Allen is just happy to be riding again, winning again.

Sober again.

Just as so many people in so many different worlds have come to know, alcoholism can destroy anyone's life. It came close to destroying Ronnie Allen Jr.'s.

"He's such a good kid. All he's ever done is hurt himself," said Ronnie's father, veteran trainer Ron Allen Sr. "It's tough when you know he should be a millionaire."

"I ruined my life. I almost ruined my career, I practically did. Disappointed my family so many times and disappointed myself," said Allen Jr., 44. "I could've been up there with the Jerry Baileys and the Mike Smiths, them guys, if I could have kept my head on straight."

Rise and Fall

Allen won his first of three Tampa Bay Downs rider titles in 1985, at 21. He would add two more in the next three years, becoming the first Downs' rider ever to win 100 races in a single meet in 1987. But it was then that Allen began to sink into the horrible habits that forced him to not only leave racing, but marriage, during a turbulent 20 years since.

"It had a lot to do with when I was younger, getting in the wrong crowd. That's what started me. Because in high school, I never drank," he said. "When I got to the racetrack and started to hang out with people that drank every day, I started drinking every day."

At his worst, Allen, weighing less than 120 pounds, would drink nearly a case of beer a day, opening his first at 6 a.m. after waking up. He also was arrested twice for driving under the influence in the 1980s, attending court-mandated rehabilitation programs each time. He resumed drinking about a month after each stint.

"He'd have a couple beers, and you'd try to tell him about it, and he'd say, 'Oh, I've got it under control,'" Allen Sr. recalls. "They all think they've got it under control, and then it's out of control again."

It was a spiral that extended through the 1990s, a decade punctuated by Allen's third DUI, a felony, in 1999. With his weight battles constant, and his mounts slowly drying up, he finally left racing in 2003, taking a job galloping horses at the Post It Stables in Jackson, Mich., owned by Jerry and Lisa Campbell, two of Allen, Sr.'s biggest clients.

"I really hit bottom, and the only way I was going to save my life was to quit drinking," he said.

Road To Recovery

Last August, a couple months after Allen Jr.'s mother, Betty, entered rehab for a similar alcohol addiction, he checked himself into the Family Recovery Center in Ohio. He spent 15 days there, undergoing detoxification and counseling. He emerged a changed man, attending daily Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and making Diet Coke and Propel Fitness Water his drinks of choice.

But because of his felony DUI, the state initially refused to grant him a license to return to racing. After stewards at Tampa Bay Downs vouched for Allen's soberness, he was granted a license and returned on Feb. 14, winning on his father's 7-year-old sprinter, Tricks of Glory. He has rapidly climbed up the jockey's standings since, and is now seventh overall with 40 victories.

"You couldn't pay him to take a drink, because he really woke up and wants to make something out of himself again," Allen Sr. said.

When the Tampa Bay Downs meet ends this weekend, the Allens will head to Presque Isle Downs in Pennsylvania. Allen Jr. will have the chance to visit his 16-year-old son, Christopher, who never knew his father sober until the past nine months.

"I hope he learns from my mistakes," Allen Jr. said.

Bart O'Connell can be reached at boconnell@pop.tampatrib.com.

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